How to use Replace to remove or add hard returns in a Word document

Too many or too few hard returns can ruin an otherwise professional looking Microsoft Word document. Fortunately, it's easy to add and replace those hard returns using Word's Replace feature.

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Image: iStock/Sonja Rachbauer

In a Word document, you usually allow Word to wrap to the next line as you enter content. You press Enter only when you're ready to start a new paragraph. It's not uncommon though, especially with older documents that you inherit to find more than one hard return between paragraphs. That's because someone used hard returns instead of altering the text style to add white space. It's not right or wrong, but in this article, I'll show you how to use the Replace feature to delete and add hard returns.

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I'm using Microsoft 365 on a Windows 10 64-bit system, but you can use earlier versions. Word Online doesn't support special-character searches yet. There's no demonstration file; you don't need one. Enter =Rand() into a blank document to create a few paragraphs of text, as I did.

What's a hard return?

Before we get started, I want to mention that the term hard return refers to manually pressing Enter to wrap text to the next line. Word refers to it as a paragraph mark. You'll see the terms used interchangeably. In this article, I'll use hard return when speaking generally and I'll use paragraph mark when referring to the actual symbol circled in Figure A. To see this symbol, click Show/Hide in the Paragraph group on the Home tab.

As you can see in Figure A, there's only one paragraph mark (hard return) between paragraphs. By default, newer versions of Word automatically add white space between paragraphs using a Spacing setting (more about that later). That's how you get so much white space between paragraphs with only one hard return.  You can adjust the setting, but let's don't. Instead, let's remove it using Replace and see what happens.

Figure A

wordwildcard-a.jpg

   There's only one paragraph mark between each paragraph.

Deleting hard returns using Replace in Word

Now let's suppose that you don't want all that white space between he paragraphs, and you incorrectly assume that there are two hard returns instead of one because the paragraphs. In this case, you might do the following using Replace:

  1. On the Home tab, click Editing and then choose Replace, or click Ctrl + G. Click the Replace tab if necessary.
  2. Click More if necessary to expose more options.
  3. Click inside the Find What control.
  4. Click the Special button at the bottom of the dialog and choose Paragraph Mark from the resulting list (Figure B). Do this again, so Word looks for two paragraph marks (Figure C). The characters ^p represent a paragraph mark. It's worth noting that you should use the Special button to enter special characters. Entering the carat character (^) manually doesn't always work. 
  5. Click inside the Replace With control.
  6. Use the Special button to enter only one Paragraph Mark (Figure C). 
  7. Take a shortcut and click Replace All. Word confirms the task but makes no replacement (Figure D). (If you have one, don't worry, it's probably an extra hard return at the end of the text.)

Figure B

wordwildcard-b.jpg

  Enter two paragraph marks.

Figure C

wordwildcard-c.jpg

  Enter only one paragraph mark.

Figure D

wordwildcard-d.jpg

  Word confirms that no replacements were made.

Are you surprised that nothing happened? By replacing two paragraph marks with only one, you might think you're removing a paragraph mark between each paragraph, but that didn't work because there's only one paragraph mark. Word didn't find two paragraph marks together. 

Let's delete just one paragraph mark and see what happens. Repeat the steps above, but in step 4, you need only one Paragraph Mark and in step 6, leave the Replace With control blank (delete the original paragraph mark from the first run if necessary). When you click Replace All, Word deletes all of the paragraph marks (a total of 5) and you end up with the single paragraph shown in Figure E.

Figure E

wordwildcard-e.jpg

  Removing the hard returns creates a bit of a mess.

Before we move on to the section on adding hard returns, press Ctrl + Z to undo the Replace task and reset the text to its original space formatting.

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How to add hard returns using Replace in Word

Now we already know that there's only one hard return between each paragraph and that a space setting is creating all that white space, so let's delete it so we can practice adding a hard return using Replace. First, let's change that space setting as follows:

  1. Select the content (all of it).
  2. Click the More button in the Paragraph group on the Home tab.
  3. On the Indents and Spacing tab, check the Don't Add Space Between Paragraphs of the Same Style option (Figure F).
  4. Click OK.

Figure F

wordwildcard-f.jpg

  Remove the extraneous spacing between the paragraphs.

The extra spacing is gone, but the single hard returns are still in place. What we need to do now is add a hard return to add more spacing. (I know it seems like we're not actually solving anything, and we're not; we're simply working through examples of how to add and delete paragraph returns using Replace.)

Repeat the instructions for the replace task used above. You're looking for one paragraph return (^p), and you want to replace it with two (^p^p). You're reversing the first replace task. Figure G shows the results. The spacing is similar to the earlier space setting.

Figure G

wordwildcard-g.jpg

  Add another hard return to increase the white space between paragraphs.

I'm not suggesting that you eliminate the default spacing between paragraphs and then replace it with two hard returns using Replace. That's not the point of the exercises. We're deleting and adding hard returns using Replace because it's easier than manually removing and adding them. You've learned that you can use Replace to add and delete them and that ^p represents a paragraph mark when searching a document. 

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